Food vending revolution

Food vending revolution


Full disclosure – this rant is really really long, and it’s me writing just to hear myself talk. Feel free to skip unless you really like to think about how to make food vending better in New York. Sometimes when you blog, you really want to get in on what’s hot at the moment. So a good blogger would do stuff about that skin bleaching child molester that just died. Or about our ultra popular president. Or about this shitty economy. Or maybe about baseball. Or summer. But I’m too caught up in reading news about the NBA summer leagues and contemplating a move to a new apartment. I can’t be bothered with current events or blogging for that matter (and it’s showed). However, sometimes an issue just tugs at me, and the current thing is about the mobile food scene in New York. There’s been a lot of chatter about food trucks or mobile food vendors in New York City. Fork in the Road covered this, and Midtown Lunch has covered this in detail over the past month. We have a broken system on our hands, and there are people on all sides of the issue who feel strongly about how to make it better. This is what I think New York City should do. Oh and btw, the pictures are of generic food trucks… not NYC food trucks, so don’t ask me where to find these..


I preface this by saying that I love street food of all sorts. And before I get into what we should do instead, here’s some background information about the street food vending scene in New York City. Right now NYC grants 3100 food vending permits and it’s not enough. This is clear because we see a booming black market for this commodity. The NY Times reported last week that the city cracked down on illegal vendors. This booming street vending economy and the lack of legal permits has led to a proposed legislation to increase street food vending permits to 25,000 and merchandising permits to 15,000. Cheap and delicious food is great, but I really want to see some studies or numbers that show me 25,000 vendors is a sustainable number. Generally, what I hear from the proponents of the bill say things like, “Since it’s a bad economy, lots of people want to sell stuff on the street. And many of these folks are immigrants, and we’re unfairly punishing these people with crackdowns when they can’t legally obtain permits. And if there’s a shortage of permits, we just have to increase this number so that we cover all potential carts that want to join the fray.”

Speaking as an immigrant, I don’t think that the city should be responsible for skewing the atmosphere that makes it easier just for immigrants to get a job. The city doesn’t necessarily have any responsibility to say, “Well, you’re here in my city, so lets find a way for you to thrive. And if you found a way to thrive semi-illegally, then I’m not allowed to retroactively enforce the rules because it makes me look like a bad white guy.” I’m of the opinion that the city should simply act in the best interest of all the people in the city.

Speaking of the best interst of all people, we get into another throny issue with food vendors – they piss the hell off of traditional restaurants and stores. The problem is that brick and mortar operations have to pay rent, and food vendors in carts/trucks do not pay rent. The lucky ones just pay $200 for a permit and the unlucky ones pay upwards of $8,000 on the black market. Very few successful restaurants in NYC only pay $8,000 in rent a year. If you’re a successful cart, $8k a year is nothing to you. If you’re just a dirty water dog vendor, $8k probably is half of your yearly revenue, and that sucks. But back to the people who call for 25,000 food permits. Uh, do you think ANYONE is going to want to rent from a building when you just pay $200 dollars for a mobile truck? I’m telling you right now, I will start a petition for McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC to get a truck if they pass this bill. Because someone needs to make a mockery out of this thing, and if it’s me, then it’s me. I will also promise to sign up for a $200 dollar permit the week they pass this and allow new people to sign up.

Having gone over the issues of the limited number of permits, the exploitation of black market permit resellers, and the showdown between brick and mortar stores, I will now go over some ideas to help the mobile food scene in NYC. These are just ideas. These ideas can adapt and change, bend and flex to the necessities of the situation. So let’s get started:

1 – Auction. The city should auction off food vending permits. This way, given the market for food vending permits, the city stands to make some money from the operation. This is key because it allows the city to hire enough people to make the system work. This gives them the resources to crack down on illegal vendors and to send out health inspectors. Some critics say this will hurt the lucky vendors who just make 14k a year and paid $200 for their permits, that those vendors cannot afford to pay $8k for a permit and still live a life. To this I say… tough. You shouldn’t count vending as a viable career option if you can’t live off of it. The auction should require vendors be present and should be held bi-yearly. This leads us to number two…

2 – Grandfather clause. Yes, we need an auction to make it fair, and we should also protect those people who already have a permit but don’t make that much money from vending. Prior to utilizing the auction, we need to let the people who hold their own permits to get a pass for the first year of the auction. This gives people time to adjust to the auction idea if they’re a poor vendor. In the second year of the grandfather clause, I think the fair way to do this would be to charge the grandfather claused vendors a fee that’s relative to how much some of the permits cost in the auction in the previous year. For example, we could find the average winning bid price of the bottom 10% of the auction. Then we divide that number by two to get how much a lower priced permit would cost for a single year, and apply that as a charge. Again, the idea is to give current permit holders time to adjust to the auction, but not to give them a free pass.

3 – Market sustainabily. We need more permits, but that exact number is nebulous to everyone right now. I favor increasing the overall number to 25,000, only if we don’t necessarily have to give them all out at once. For example, the first year we could double the number of permits to 6,000. This gives us approximately 3,000 permits to auction off. But if 6,000 permits is not enough, then we work up towards 25,000. We don’t necessarily have to just keep auctioning them off until they’re all gone. Then the city reserves the right to hold an special auction for any additional permits that would help alleviate the permit requests beyond the 6,000 permits. This also gives the city the right to reduce the number of permits that go up for the next auction.

4 – Location + permit. This potentially would be even more contraversial. I think the permit should come with three potential spots that’s written into the permit. This way brick and mortars can know what their competition is, and can choose for themselves whether they want to rent out a space where a dessert truck is parked out front. This also brings peace to vendors because they can’t fight each other for spots.

5 – Pollution control. This is not really something we should change, but just be mindful of. People think that more food vendors = more happiness. You know what else it gives you? More congestion. More pollution. More noise. I see vendors on a busy sidewalk after work all the time, and I just wish the cops would bust their asses. More vendors will bring more congestion. People who frequent food trucks in NYC are mostly people who live here. And people who live here hate tourists because they bring slow walkers and congestion. Uh, if we increase the vendors by 8-fold to 25,000, I can guarantee you it’ll get out of control. You can’t even argue that. There’s a cheap chinese food place by my friends apartment, and you see chicken bones on the ground all the time. Scene like that would only multiply with more street food.

6 – Permit possession limit. This is the way you can keep the black market from forming… if you disallow any single person or company to own more than three permits, then no one can snatch up all the permits and resell them. The number can be arbitrarily changed of course to five or ten or whatever is good. But we set the number, and anyone who wants more permits has to send in a special request and demonstrate that he/she already runs three cartsa and will open more. This way no one can just buy a permit at the auction and then re-sell it later. Permits should go to vendors who’re actually doing work, not some scumbag.

I think most of us like more food vendors, especially if they’re delicious. We just have to be careful because if you have 25,000 permits, and each permit is 200 dollars, then who would want to rent a store front? Just buy a damn truck with the money you would spend on rent. More trucks parked on the side of the road = more congestion. That’s just how it works. Everyone wants to sell at the same time too. You think there’s going to be a glut of food trucks at 12-noon or at 3am?

It’s obvious the system is broken and can be changed. I don’t know all the answers, and these are just my half-assed attempt at a new system if I were to design it. It definitely could use some refinements or outright overhaul. What would you do to change the mobile food scene in NYC? And are you accounting for all the externalities (or side effects) of your ideas?

Posted by Danny on July 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm

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